Immigration is one of the most divisive issues of America’s 2016 presidential election. On the Republican side, the quality of the discussion surrounding this topic has been pretty poor. Facts have been thrown out of the window, replaced with racist stereotypes. Those GOP candidates with softer stances towards immigrants have either dropped out of the race or hardened their position.
The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, are trying to woo the country’s growing Latino and Asian populations that will most likely be voting for one of them. To this end, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have unveiled immigrant-friendly policy agendas. While they’re similar in some senses, they also differ in ways that haven’t really been fleshed out in the Democratic presidential debates so far.
So with 11 states and the American Samoa heading to the polls on Super Tuesday, here are some key takeaways from each candidate’s immigration agenda, based on their campaign websites, remarks made in recent debates, their voting records while in Congress, and information gathered from with both staffs.
Where they’re similar
At their core, Sanders and Clinton are promising many of the same things. They’ve both pledged to make immigration reform a priority, vowing to act on it within their first 100 days in office. They support a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. And to achieve the latter, they intend to defend and expand President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, currently on hold pending a review by the Supreme Court, which if implemented would shield 5 million undocumented people from being deported.
Both Sanders and Clinton recently spoke out against the Obama administration’s problematic raids of Central American mothers and unaccompanied minors, and laid out their respective plans to deal with the surge in migration from that region. They’ve also offered to close down family detention centers (activists and courts have deemed the detention of children in these prison-like centers inhumane) as well as for-profit detention centers (where instances of abuse have been reported).
In addition, they both want to make Obamacare benefits accessible to the undocumented. And for those already on the path to citizenship, both candidates aim to make what’s now a pretty expensive naturalization process a little bit cheaper.
Where they differ
On deferred action of undocumented folks. According to his campaign website, Sanders wants to extend administrative relief from deportation to groups that include parents of DREAMers and legal permanent residents, and undocumented workers who have reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after labor disputes. He would also lower the bar of eligibility for deferred action, allowing immigrants charged with “significant misdemeanor” offenses—crimes which include driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, sexual assault, and burglary, among others—to apply for relief, Erika Andiola, a press secretary for Senator Sanders, tells CityLab via email.
Clinton’s plan extends deferred action to parents of DREAMers and “others with a history of service and contribution to their communities,” her website says. How many undocumented people that ultimately adds up to is unclear, but it seems to be fewer than the number eligible for relief under Sanders’s policies.
On unaccompanied minors and refugees from Central America. In a recent letter asking President Obama to halt the raids on Central American families, Sanders asked for Temporary Protected Status for the refugees from that region. In other words, he wants the government to let individuals who’ve fled violent countries in Central America to stay in the U.S. and work on humanitarian grounds. (Organizations like the American Immigration Lawyers Association have asked for the same.) Sanders also highlighted in this letter, as well as on his website, the importance of providing legal counsel for detained immigrants and child refugees, and of funding immigration courts to fairly adjudicate asylum cases.
Clinton caught some flak recently for expressing her support for deportation for these children last year, and for saying that she wouldn’t employ a “blanket rule” that lets all children coming from Central America automatically stay in the country. She did, however, walk back her position in the Democratic presidential debate held in Milwaukee, via The Washington Post:
“With respect to the Central American children, I made it very clear that those children needed to be processed appropriately, but we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.”
Her plan, according to her campaign, pushes for government-funded access to legal counsel for unaccompanied minors, as well as more resources for the part of the judicial system that processes their applications—similar to Sanders’s plan. Where it goes a step further is that it asks Congress to fund a White House effort to help mitigate the economic and violent conditions in Central America that lead to the exodus. She advocates working with regional partners to “support entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and workforce training in the region; help strengthen judicial systems and rule of law; and expand education, especially for girls,” according to a press release her campaign sent to reporters.
On the role of police in immigration enforcement. Currently, many police departments in the country work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as per the federal agency’s Priority Enforcement Program. Clinton’s 2016 agenda doesn’t explicitly mention a stand on the issue. But in 2008 she said that she wasn’t in favor of police enforcement of immigration law, via Politico:
“It should not be the responsibility of a municipality or county. This has to be fixed at the federal level. There are lots of strong arguments against turning local police officers into immigration enforcement officials. It has to do with making sure people will report crimes, making sure people will go to the police when there’s a problem. That’s a matter of public safety. It doesn’t always only affect the immigrant community, it affects all of us.”
On some other key points. Apart from the all of the above, Sanders goes further for undocumented immigrants in other ways. He wants to offer in-state tuition for DREAMers nationwide, for example, whereas Clinton would “support any state that takes that position, and would work with those states and encourage more states to do the same thing,” she said in a recent debate.
On his website, Sanders includes a section on how he intends to make ICE and Customs and Border Patrol more accountable and transparent; for one thing, he wants their officials to wear body cameras. And instead of scaling up border security to keep out Mexicans crossing into the U.S. illegally, he wants to review the effect of trade agreements that were meant in part to decrease the flow of migrants but have failed to do so. (For context, net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero, according to the Pew Research Center.)
Sanders does support electronic status verification systems, like E-Verify, which would enable employers to check the immigration status of job applicants. E-Verify has been criticized on a number of fronts, including accuracy and potential for discrimination.
Overall, Clinton has yet to go into as much detail about what she envisions for America’s undocumented immigrants, and what she has made clear doesn’t go as far in protecting them as what Sanders has proposed.
What about the legal immigration pipeline?
Both candidates have been relatively mum on how they intend to remake the broken skilled immigration pipeline, a part of the immigration puzzle that’s important but doesn’t typically get much airtime in presidential debates.
Guest worker programs are one issue in this domain that Sanders, at least, has been pretty vocal about. He believes strongly in the need to overhaul guest worker visa programs—specifically H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, and J-1—because employers often used these programs to exploit guest workers and displace American workers. That there aren’t enough protections for U.S. and foreign workers built into these programs is the reason Sanders says he didn’t vote for Ted Kennedy’s 2007 immigration reform bill and the reason he considered the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, which he did vote for, flawed.
He’s faced some criticism for taking this restrictionist position, especially with respect to his 2007 vote, given that some of these programs are the only stepping stones to citizenship for people hoping to immigrate legally to the U.S. The reforms he’s suggested in his current agenda, however, don’t seem unreasonable. Sanders wants guest workers not to be bound to one employer, and advocates for higher wages of workers “if there is a true labor shortage,” his website says.
Whether he intends to raise or lower the number of visas given out through these programs accordingly is unclear (although a flexible cap on H-1B visas was a part of the 2013 reform he voted for). Andiola, the press secretary, clarifies that he supports making advanced STEM graduates eligible for green cards upon graduation—a provision included in both the 2013 legislation and the Obama administration’s executive action on immigration.
Clinton, too, believes guest worker programs need to be reformed, as she mentioned in her previous presidential campaign. But she’s supported immigration legislation proposed in 2006 and 2007 that’s sought to expand some guest worker programs as well as put in more worker protection. And of course, she has come out in support of President Obama’s executive actions (which address skilled immigration). But a detailed plan of skilled immigration reform from her end is not yet available.
From the above differences, it’s fair to say that, overall, Sanders gets immigration right—certainly more so than Clinton. That matters for the primary. But the question that will remain afterward is this: In a divisive Congressional climate, where agreement on immigrant-friendly legislations have failed time and again, can either of them get their reforms passed if they’re elected?